Were You Educated Or Indoctrinated?

… or were you indoctrinated into believing you were educated?

I’ve just read something stating that articles should begin by establishing the writer’s credibility as regards whatever is being discussed. But when it comes to life’s fundamentals, surely everyone is of pretty equal credibility. Merely being born is entry to full-time lifelong study in the big university of life — aka the school of hard knocks — the place where all the real lessons are learned.

The hard knocks began age four when I discovered on the way to school that the outside world differed from the happy family life I had enjoyed thus far. As the youngest of four from solid parents, nothing had prepared me for the fact that some guys pick on other guys just to see what they can get away with.

Bullies aside, the teachers didn’t seem smart either. One day the exercise was to write the alphabet in capitals, but I had been off ill for a couple of weeks and was pretty floored by the challenge. However, by craning my neck I could just get a squint at a blackboard-load of letters that had obviously been used for the lessons — and thus I learned the art of cheating.

Unfortunately, my young mind had previously heard my brother explaining how mirrors reverse images and — given I was looking at something I was supposed to copy — I figured all the letters ought to be switched left-to-right. So when the teacher finally came to check my inexcusably all-right-but-all-left-and-all-wrong results, I thought I was totally rumbled. But bizarrely, this much older and wiser person simply considered that I not only knew all the letters but had internalised them all as mirror images. Maybe that’s some recognised developmental stage in learning. It certainly became one for me as regards learning about adults.

The lessons in adult stupidity were more comprehensive when it came to religion. Catholics went to catholic schools. We Protestants were at a protestant school because… well that’s how Christianity brings people together: it divides them up from the get-go. And as if to make sure that this policy of religious indoctrination and childhood segregation was manifest right within the classroom, the quarter of the class that were branded as Jews got herded off three times a week to do jewish stuff… whatever that was. To this day their activities remain a mystery to me, but even back then there was an eerie unspoken awareness that the reasons for all this otherising, plus whatever purpose it might serve, were things never to be discussed. Personally, I just thought the whole thing was a load of baloney as my parents had no time for religion. But I was already learning how so-called education provides lessons the school boards don’t even imagine they are teaching… for example, that the world works to coerce even kids into divisive activities that they have no faith in and that have no demonstrably positive outcomes.

As an interlude, and especially for all you aspiring writers on Medium, here is a true story from those days that suggests how unconsciously pretentious we may all be as a result of our education. It concerns a brainbox that joined the class from another school and was instantly top in everything. One day the teacher read out a passage from his essay and stressed how in his writing he described a plane as having developed engine trouble — knowing that most of the class would have written something more basic such as that the engine had or got a problem. But really — what is the difference, other than that one sounds posher?
Houston, we have a problem.
Okay. Please rephrase, stating that you’ve developed some trouble.

The first six months of secondary school were probably the worst six months of my life. We often did not even have a teacher and I suspect that was actually the majority of the time. Leave about forty pre-adolescent males unsupervised in a room they don’t want to be in, and what can you expect? A common game was called Moochy-stiff, and consisted of everyone sitting utterly motionless and silent until someone called someone else out on having supposedly moved — upon which the third most cretinous members of the class would descend on the victim and beat the fuck out them. It was normal practise to clear the centre of the room for this purpose as the desks only blocked the full thrust of all the flailing limbs.

That was a brutalising six months: at the start of the following year I decked a guy for the most innocuous comment imaginable. He was simply a new face and, as my mind had it, I was going to get the upper hand from square one. But I was nonetheless considered a snob by some, and so I worked hard at talking rough and slurring my words to appear a bit harder than I ever was. Meanwhile, the teachers carried on deluding themselves that it was they who were dispensing the real education.

Classroom stuff is easy if you put your mind to it. All you need is motivation — although you can’t just magic that out of nowhere. Educational motivation somehow existed in my family, and something between sibling rivalry and survival instincts made me think I had to keep my end up.

Mathematics was the first thing I latched on to and I found it easy to come out on top. Science subjects were similar — but exactly because these subjects were so damned logical, I quickly found them lacking in the creativity that existed in other subjects and that rendered life emotionally meaningful. I didn’t feel inclined to be programmed like a robot, and my interests naturally evolved in other directions.

But with zero discussion, a bunch of us were simply thrown into some additional science stream. Thanks for asking. That meant abandoning woodwork, which to this day has remained a not-quite-realised love of mine. It also meant taking computer studies which turned out to be the most monumental bore imaginable. I never did go down a science route and, although computers have been far more part of my working life than for most people of my age, nothing from those school days was ever relevant. I actually had a career in graphics despite being taken out of art. And a classmate had rare success in the music game despite being taken out of music. In total, we had about one hour careers guidance in our entire schooling — but surely that’s enough considering its just the rest of your life that’s involved.

I remember how when I passed the final maths exam with a ‘B’ all the maths teacher could do was shudder her frame at me in utter disdain as she announced I should have achieved an ‘A’. It seemed impossible for this adult to understand or even just notice that I had become interested in other things. Was I a bad person for not believing that one must push oneself to the limit and against one’s heart for the shallow glory of being educationally qualified? Did she imagine her adult tantrum would make me aspire to the sort of life she was pursuing?

One thing I realised with some shock when the first serious career-oriented qualification exams arrived was just how big a lie it was that the teachers existed primarily to educate the students. These adults who had hitherto been presented as straightforward educators quite dramatically morphed into people who no longer prioritised what the students actually knew and understood — they only prioritised getting exam results. All the tricks in the book, short of outright cheating — you might get caught — were suddenly fair game in their efforts to up their classes’ results and thereby present themselves in a good light. This was the first lesson regarding a new truth about education: getting qualified generally tops actual knowledge or insight, and those who operate the system actively encourage this approach, and use it themselves to further their own standing.

My hard-earned credentials for questioning the value of formal education also extend into the moral codes of the institution. In my experience at least, most school students are situated somewhere between flunking the system and having no interest in it, and doing well and generally buying in to the teachers’ games. I was the real problem kid that actually did well but dared to examine and criticise the institution. Consequently, I was accused falsely of vandalism, called a liar for telling the truth, punished for acts that never took place, and rubber-eared or shunned whenever I tried to politely explain to the teachers what I actually thought of the place. This did me no favours, but I learned more real lessons.

To be complete, I should mention the most memorable and positive event of those years which was ten short impromptu minutes with the English teacher, just talking one day after class. She was somehow a switched-on person who seemed uniquely able to transcend all the generational and institutional expectations, and actually see you as more than just a stupid school kid. I do not even remember what was discussed, but I remember that for once I was actually part of two people talking to each other, amidst years of other teachers simply talking at everyone. I wasn’t mad after all - but this wasn’t even part of a class. What does that say for the formality of it all?

University had its own flavour of madness. The philosophy department prided itself on doing philosophy as opposed to teaching philosophy. This is fine in principle, but how do you mark papers for people who are simply doing stuff? If you philosophise about how god could be disguised as Batman, and that the only reason no one realises this is because he has so successfully covered it up — he being an omnipotent god — how is anyone qualified to give you anything other than full marks? Have you not done philosophy as much as any of the greats — only in a more compact and efficient manner?

Needless to say, the truth was that marks were in fact awarded for more expected ideas — that is, for having learned what was in fact taught. Doing philosophy is fine; just don’t expect a pass mark. Academic philosophy is a subject like all the rest throughout education. You are not really free to think for yourself, but only to absorb enough existing ideas for others to decide you warrant a pass for conforming to their expectations. When described that way, academia can appear more as a force of conservatism than as any form of inquiry.

The same conservatism extends to the other subjects I studied — psychology and sociology. In both cases there are accepted great minds who can nonetheless easily be seen as recognised through their ability to win academic acclaim, rather than for anything that they have ever demonstrated as valid insight. Both subjects are so awash with contradictory ideas that any idea that one learns anything more than confusion is dubious.

The fact is that the sort of practical knowledge that is seen in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects has no real parallel in the humanities — a situation in which the description ‘social sciences’ can be seen more as an attempt to steal scientific credibility than to earn it.

This was supported by the fact that the psychology department seemed to be the epicentre of academia’s nervous breakdowns: would you put faith in a building company whose houses regularly collapsed? I am not saying the academic course I followed was entirely without learning. Anyone could work out the psychology behind some students in the later years starting to invite the lecturers to their private parties…

For me, real human psychology can be better understood by studying behaviour during an election cycle than by attending any educational establishment. However, the powers-that-be have no interest in properly educating ordinary people about how they come to be the powers-that-be and so, within society’s general hierarchical structure we find that the real workings of human psychology are suppressed for political reasons. This is no wacky conspiracy theory: you don’t have to believe in that stuff to observe how for example, simply wearing a suit, shirt and tie affects how others perceive you. Even clothes speak to us.

Being academically qualified nonetheless gives you a leg up, and I know this to be true, even if I am berating education from start to finish. The fact is that even if you disagree vehemently with what I am saying here, you’ll likely feel slightly disarmed because you’re going to have to challenge someone with a degree. This is an aspect of how the system works: anyone’s ideas, whatever they may be, are generally perceived to be more credible simply because they have letters after their name. Why else are the speakers at events invariably introduced with recitals of all their academic achievements? The obvious goal is to establish credibility in the eyes of the audience before they even speak.

This perhaps gets to the core of education’s indoctrination: the idea that you are somehow smarter or better than those who didn’t get so far up the educational ladder. This is what justifies you being paid more and taken more seriously than others. It is a form of tacit supremacy that might not be voiced for obvious reasons, but leads so many who have been through further education to subliminally see themselves as somehow more worthy of whatever rewards society bestows on them.

But it is perfectly arguable that those rewards are just the pay-off for rather uncritically embracing all the inequalities of our society in a conservative way that does little to change anything. When education has preached conformity and obedience to authority from day one, what else is it targeting in terms of the people it produces? Those who take STEM subjects or other subjects of direct practical use and then go on to lucrative careers are arguably those who, for whatever reason, never question the status quo and simply see it as a given for them to personally exploit. All others who either intellectually or viscerally find something lacking or distasteful about that status quo, and who therefore shun its tools of childhood indoctrination, face rejection in one form or another. In short, it could be said that formal education is a form of conservative indoctrination, whereas real learning requires keeping one’s mind free of such indoctrination.

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